The violent cost of silence

By Paula Gilbert

The Third World has had to pay the price for the silence and inaction of the rest of humanity. There is so much violence in our world, but the amount of attention and value your tragedy receives depends on your geographical location.

On September 7 2001 fighting broke out in Jos, the capital of Plateau State in central Nigeria, and within six days over 1 000 people were dead and tens of thousands displaced.

Then September 11 happened and the world seemed to forget about Jos, even other Africans seemed to get distracted from the situation. First year journalism student, Karen Crouch said “I never even knew that there was a war in Nigeria at the time. All we heard about was 9/11.” The suffering of First World citizens overshadowed the tragedy of Africans.

One must question the justness of media when human tragedy seems to be judged by GDP. The impulse is to blame news media or at least appeal to media forms to address the inherent double standard that regards violence in the Third World as a norm, and not worth reporting. Journalists must have the power to tell the stories of those with no voices. Unfortunately in many countries this is not the case.

African dictatorships are famous for their censorship or outright banning of media freedom. In recent years the incidents of media freedom violations have increased, especially in countries like Zimbabwe.

In Southern Africa alone, 40 journalists were threatened during 2005, according to the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA). Also in southern Africa, 16 were beaten and 36 censored by governments who appear not to respect human rights and violate the media freedom rights of their people.

Professor Louise Vincent, associate Professor at the Department of Political and International studies, said that “press freedom and freedom of speech in a democracy are among the most vital freedoms to protect” and that if these freedoms are undermined so many other freedoms fall away, like the ability to freely criticise public policy and thereby improve the situation. “It is up to citizens themselves to pressure governments for the freedoms that they wish to protect,” said Vincent.

In Zimbabwe, free speech and media freedom have been criminalized through laws like the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) and the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) resulting in the closure of The Daily News, Daily News on Sunday, The Tribune and The Weekly Times. These are repressive pieces of legislation that were passed to undermine the right to freedom of expression and stifle the exchange of ideas and information of Zimbabwe’s people. The media aren’t even allowed into the war torn region of Darfur.

Perhaps we are being too cynical about the inaction of people. There are many sites on the Internet lobbying for the end of media oppression and tragedies like genocide.

Sometimes it is not the inaction of people that causes harm, but the inaction of institutions like the United Nations that perpetuate it. In 2003, MTV Europe launched a campaign to free the imprisoned leader of Burma’s Democratic Movement Party, Aung San Suu Kyi.
       
MTV urged viewers to write to the United Nations calling for her release. The campaign was aired across all 42 MTV channels worldwide, and burmacampaign.org, the campaign’s website, reported that the initiative reached a potential audience of 1 billion people in 166 territories.

But nothing came of it. On October 24 2006, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi reached a milestone of a total of 11 years under house arrest for peacefully calling for democratic reform in Burma. According to the site, the UN still does nothing while the violent cost of silence accumulates.

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